The divine revelation of self-love in unexpected places

Nishali Naik/Staff

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I had a boyfriend between the ages of 16 and 19 who was half-hearted Greek Orthodox but would pray every night like clockwork, rolling away from me to face the wall as he whispered a frantic plea for salvation. I was raised half-hearted Episcopalian, baptized at nine years old in a dress designed for a plus-size toddler, my 12-year-old sister gangly in her white pantsuit. We were given bibles and crucifixes despite being decidedly unimpressed by the whole concept; I just did it because I loved the way that the Rev. Anne Howard tapped her feet in red shoes as she stood over the communion tray on Sunday mornings.

I think I’m always looking for God, now — for a sense that I am not in charge of much of anything. It’s comforting to think that there’s some lilac-toned deity who wraps around the chipped polish on my fingernails as I press my palms together for some kind of strength or grace. There’s not much belonging in organized religion unless you’re willing to pretend to be pious, and I’ve always been good at that.

In high school, long after my parents decided that their Sunday mornings were better spent in bed, I began going to Quaker meeting. My grandparents became Quakers after a short stint in Russian Orthodoxy that nearly drove them to divorce, and I only went to meeting to see my grandpa’s wide smile as the three of us introduced ourselves as the Deweys. It’s a dying religion, too quiet for most and averse to any sort of evangelism, so the Quakers were prepared to spend big bucks to keep me around. They hired me for $40 an hour to teach Sunday school for the meeting’s two children, where I’d throw down a big tub of play-dough and thank my lucky stars for the extra cash. Afterward, all of the octogenarians would come over one by one to grasp my hand as if I had done something special and I’d wonder why old people’s pupils get so small.

The money supported my pretend smoking habit — I’d leave meeting with a handful of granola in one pocket and my Sunday school cash in the other. On the way home, I’d stop at the 7/11 on the corner for some Marlboro Reds — the shorter ones, so I could feel like a cowboy. I never had to check over my shoulder because Quakers don’t go to 7/11, they go to the farmers’ market or maybe to Gelson’s. Wherever elderly pacifists go.

Some Sunday in my 17th year, I walked from the meeting house to meet that boyfriend at the Greek Festival, dangling a cigarette from my fingers and practicing the best technique to make it seem as if I were inhaling each carefully held drag. It was hot the way Santa Barbara gets just between spring and summer — dry oak leaves pricking at my ankles as I walked with my sweater draped over my bare shoulders, sunburn still inevitable. I hadn’t explored this side of town, and had only ever went there when I was a Girl Scout to bake cookies with blind people at the Braille Institute.

I remember I stopped to rest against the pillar of a blue church: there was God again. I could hear the less-than-dulcet tones of Christian rock music through an open window, so I gratefully stubbed out my cigarette, fixed the straps of my sandals, and went around to the front doors to check it out. I usually hate that stuff — religion with any sort of catchy charisma makes me want to barf. It’s like Max Liebermann said when he saw the Nazis marching past his front door: “I could not possibly eat as much as I would like to throw up.” But my curiosity had the better of me, so I took the steps two at a time, just hoping to linger in the doorway for a moment and see if I felt moved by the presence of God.

There was a red bin filled to the brim with ice and cans of Coca-Cola outside the door, and a plastic mixing bowl accepting dollar donations. Inside the church were rows of pews upholstered in purple velvet and a projector screen scrolling out the words to an impassioned electric guitar rendition of some modern hymn. It took me a moment to notice that the lyrics were in Spanish. A man in the wings beckoned to me, offering me a seat with a smile as wide as my grandfather’s.

I could tell it was kind of a Baptist church, and for all my church-hopping I’d never been to a Baptist church. I was trying not to be an anthropologist about the whole thing — I was a guest, and besides, God is meant to be about as universal as the Coca-Cola on the steps outside. But I was embarrassed by my shorts and uncovered head — the other women and even the little girls had delicate crochet scarves over their heads and wore skirts down past their knees. The priest was sweaty in his full suit, his mouth so close to the microphone that his every word rang out like a siren.

People were crying, swaying, down on their knees, arms raised. I wanted that sort of abandon for myself but I didn’t want to look more out of place than I already did. There was a sudden lull in the music and the congregants swelled forth from the half-empty pews to coagulate around their sweaty priest. Unsure of myself, I stood too. A woman held me encouragingly by the elbow and led me down the aisle. Fuck, I thought to myself.

At the altar, the priest was blessing people one by one, praying over them until they staggered backwards, exhausted by the weight of their faith. “Do you want to be blessed,” somebody asked me, and I tried to think of a way to decline but ended up nodding because I am polite and because I couldn’t decide if God wanted me to or not. I could feel people’s hands on my too-naked body as I stood to meet my fate, standing several inches taller than my impromptu spiritual leader.

He spoke towards the ceiling in rapid-fire Spanish and I swayed back and forth with the weight of all of those hands. I couldn’t tell if it was God or just the immeasurable power of fifty people wanting it to be God, but I felt electrified. When my turn was over I slipped back down the aisle to the back of the church and left, dropping the remainder of my Quaker money in the Coca-Cola bowl on my way out. My eyes took a moment to adjust to the intensity of the sun and for a moment I thought that I must be dead, or dreaming.

At the Greek Festival I fought with my boyfriend, angry at the way he mocked me for leaving my cash because I knew he just wanted it for dolmas and honey cake. I tried to explain that I felt God in a Baptist church and that God was maybe just people, or something in the way that people come together to hold each other, but he scowled down at his shoes and walked away. There was only one God to him, however half-hearted, and no room for the open-endedness of my haphazard spirituality. We grew into adulthood, and apart, and I realized that I was no less God than he was.

Louisa Dewey graduated from the College of Natural Resources in 2016 and is now pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Iowa and won second place in the Daily Californian’s Summer of Love Essay competition.